The exploration of atonement and forgiveness is key to both texts. In Hardy’s poetry, this takes the form of nostalgia and memories of his first wife, Emma Gifford.
For the later part of their marriage, the couple had been alienated from one another as she retreated to sleep alone in the attic, where she wrote letters to friends about his unkindness. In the months after Emma’s death, Hardy began writing a number of poems, filled with compassion, loss and regret. During the writing of these poems, Hardy was in love with a younger woman who eventually became his wife, yet the poems for Emma seem to echo with his desire to reach out for those memories one last time. “He loved the woman dead and inaccessible as he had never loved her in life…” This is stated in Claire Tomalin’s introduction to her novel, cited from Thomas Hardy’s novel The Well-Beloved. In essence, this reads almost like a prophecy of what happened to Hardy after the death of his first wife, Emma In Atonement however, McEwan acknowledges that there is no such thing as ‘the full story’ about anything. He explains that he wanted to look at ‘the inner life that is not driven by surface rationality but by a spectrum of hints, certainties that have no base.’ Ian McEwan certainly makes this point clear through the recurring image of water throughout his novel Atonement, with the underlying message that no matter how desperately somebody wishes to atone for their actions, their attempts at atonement are ineffective and true atonement remains forever elusive.
Much like Briony’s final attempt to reach out for forgiveness through the writing of her novel in Atonement, it can be argued that Hardy’s collection of poems represents a final chance for him to express his compassion for Emma in an effort to atone for his wrongdoing. Whereas McEwan presents forgiveness and atonement as somewhat achievable in Atonement, this theme is presented as merely impossible in Hardy’s poetry since in most of the poetry the speaker experiences loss and regret. Water imagery is used throughout Atonement as a symbol of atoning for one’s actions. Robbie and Briony, are often associated with water and arguably, these are two characters who have the most to atone for; Robbie withdraws from his relationship with Cecilia and accepts that he is responsible for Cecilia isolating herself from her family, whilst Briony seeks forgiveness for falsely accusing Robbie for the rape of Lola. More specifically, the act of cleansing with water is often associated with these characters. An example of this is in part three of the novel is when Briony takes on the profession of nursing during the war. Part of her job role, along with others, includes “scrubbing their cracked and bleeding chilblained hands under freezing water”, cleansing the wounds of those injured from the war. By choosing to set his novel just as a world war unfolds, McEwan is able to explore not just the physical effects of the fighting, here attended to by Briony, but also the ways in which class barriers begin to dissolve.
McEwan’s use of cleansing images as an extended metaphor leads us to believe that Briony is genuinely attempting to atone for her false accusation against Robbie. The indication of how frequently she washes her hands “between tasks, perhaps a dozen times a day” suggests that she is seeking every opportunity to do this. Furthermore, McEwan’s verb choice “scrubbed” has connotations of hard work in order to get rid of something. However, it can be argued that full atonement is ultimately impossible, because she does cleanse her hands, but in the process this only leaves her in pain from the cracks and the blood as a result of the excessive scrubbing. Nonetheless, Briony’s chosen career could be interpreted as a self-given punishment as she “abandons herself to a life of strictures, rules, obedience, housework, and a constant fear of disapproval”. It is no doubt that life on the ward is strict and difficult in comparison to the comforts of her previous life of luxury, where she dreamt of becoming a famous writer.
This is highlighted through the repetition of nouns associated with constraint and control. Although there is a possibility that she did not have much career choice due to the sheer desperation of people needed to help those who were wounded in the war, her choice as a nurse is significant. Robbie’s experience of the horrors in Dunkirk along with the chosen career in itself could be another attempt for her to atone for her wrongdoings towards Robbie, since she is helping those who were in similar situations to Robbie.
On the other hand, Hardy’s presentation of atonement and forgiveness in his poetry seems to allude to the idea that it is merely impossible. This is achieved through the use of direct address and questions, specifically in at the beginning of his poem “The Voice”. In the poem’s powerful opening reference to a “woman muched missed”, the speaker directly addresses a female who has passed away, presumably his dead wife Emma, expressing the ongoing potency of her presence.
This is shortly followed by “how you call to me, call to me”, in which the repetition used turns this into an imperative, as though the speaker is firstly noting how the voice continues to call to him and then urges the voice to continue calling to him. This highlights the urgency and desire the speaker feels upon hearing her, and stresses how immovable and endless the voice is in the speaker’s mind. The poem’s metre, written in dactylic tetrameter, gives the poem a sense of liveliness that seems at odds with its nostalgic and sorrowful tone. Yet it succeeds in expressing the sense of uncertainty and excitement combined that the speaker feels at supposedly hearing the voice of a woman he knows to be dead and perhaps captures the relentlessness or insistence of this voice. The first three stanzas of the poem in it’s rising iambic rhythm, heightens the hope experienced by the speaker in the possibility of his departed beloved returning to him one day. Even so, the final stanza demonstrates a collapse of his illusion by the collapse of the structure used in the poem, highlighted by the frequency of end stopping and caesura which creates a delayed rhythm, resulting in the speaker ‘faltering forward’.
Life forces the speaker onwards, shown through nature imagery of “wind oozing thin” but his renewed feelings for his dead wife keep him stumbling, consequently being unable to forgive himself and holding guilt with him to his death bed. Likewise, during Robbie’s scenario of the war in part two of Atonement, he attempts to use water to clean, disinfect and to try and heal the wound he received in battle. Even when Robbie has no water due to the rationing and limited resources during the war, McEwan still associates water with Robbie’s cleansing as “he sat and thought about water and tried to clean his tongue against his sleeve”. Robbie’s experience of war provokes guilt for the innocent victims. In part two of the novel, readers are presented with the shocking image of a leg in a tree. The detachment and decay of human body parts perhaps foreshadows the horrors of war to be described in later parts of the novel.
The leg Robbie discovers in the tree reminds him of that night in 1935, when he is commanded to “gather up from the mud the pieces of burned, striped cloth, the shreds of his pajamas, then bring him down, the poor pale boy, and make a decent burial”. Distressing imagery of the deceased, more such as a child’s leg found in a tree, haunts Robbie and the detachment of body parts could symbolise the horrors of war as well as his loss of innocence. McEwan’s use of the semantic field of clothing, especially the pyjamas highlights the horrors that Robbie had to deal with and the youthfulness of the innocent boy. Although atonement is sought by each character, it can be argued that it is ultimately unrealistic to ever expect to achieve full atonement.
For example, when Robbie washes his face “changing the water to a rusty brown”, it draws attention to the fact that perhaps his forgiveness is successful because he has managed to rid himself of the dirt that remained on his skin. However, this could also illustrate that his sins and mistakes are always with him. Furthermore, it can be argued that his quest for forgiveness has failed in the end, because his attempt at cleansing and healing his battle wound is unsuccessful since this is what ultimately causes his death in comparison to Briony, who although suffers as a result of the frequent scrubbing, is able to successfully clean her hands, metaphorically ridding herself of her wrongdoings .
Similarly to the sorrowful tone of “The Voice”, another poem written by Hardy, “The Going”, explores a range of emotions that he experiences in response to Emma’s death. As explained by Claire Tomalin, Hardy transformed his hopelessly revived love into poetry; the poems he conjured up as he mourned the death of his wife and celebrated the love they had once shared. The poem could be based around apostrophising Hardy’s dead wife through the use of repetitive accusatory questioning. Each of the leading stanzas begins with “Why”, with the following stanzas developing the question that is asked or, in the case of final stanza, admitting that no answer is possible. Hardy’s words seem almost to be a complaint, namely that she left him “unknowing / that your great going / Had place that moment”. The assonance of the ‘o’ sound in “unknowing” and “going” captures the grief of mourning.
The speaker appears to believe that her failure to “lip me the softest call / Or utter a wish for a word” was a deliberate act on her part, as though it was her choice to fail to communicate as she slipped away. In this way from the beginning of the poem, it is possible to interpret the idea that The speaker is seeking forgiveness from his departed beloved as a result of her passing, rather than the speaker himself seeking forgiveness, which seems to be the overall focus of most of his other poems. This could be reflected on Hardy’s own regret with Emma, as she was looked after by a maid and often had her meals brought up from the kitchen to eat alone, Yet in the penultimate stanza, the blame shifts to the two of them as the pronoun changes from “you” to “we” in the line “why, then, latterly did we not speak”.
Perhaps here it is evident that full forgiveness is not possible as the speaker is unable to accept his part of the blame without questioning the voice of his departed beloved.Towards the end of McEwan’s novel, it is still undecided whether atonement was truly reached. Although she wishes for forgiveness, Briony knows that, despite the fact she “Flinched as her hopes lifted unreally” after the incident, it is impossible to amend her mistake and feels that she does not deserve forgiveness from both Cecilia and Robbie. Cecilia’s act of turning away from her family and cutting communication from them highlights this.
However, the forthright nature of Cecilia’s declaration to Briony “I won’t ever forgive you.” could have driven Briony to come to terms with her crime as she works for 59 years on her novel. The emphasis on the adverb “ever” leaves readers in a state of grief, knowing Briony will never be physically forgiven by the couple since their passing. Although in this situation it would be easy to fall into a state of self loathing, Briony’s act of writing her novel Two Figures by a Fountain, which explains what she has done, allows Cecilia and Robbie to live in peace by giving them their happy ending in the form of fictional characters.In conclusion, we see in both texts an exploration of atonement and forgiveness and a consideration of the extent to which they are attainable. Arguably, McEwan’s characters make an effort to try and atone for their wrongdoings.
Hardy does this less so, in his poetry. Both writers are demonstrating that in situations that cost someone their reputation, career or even life itself, forgiveness is difficult to achieve.